TOOLKIT SERIES 2- Kieran Knowles- Now, where were we?
It is important that we bring compassion and understanding to the situation we find ourselves in. This continues to be a tremendously difficult time for…
It is important that we bring compassion and understanding to the situation we find ourselves in. This continues to be a tremendously difficult time for theatre and the artists who make it. If we are going to recover from the experiences of the past 12 months, we are going to need playwrights. That is a remarkable endeavour and a huge responsibility – something for which we all have the utmost respect and admiration at the Bruntwood Prize. That is why we are always striving to find ways to support playwrights and encourage people to have the courage to write.
Whether you have been able to be creative or not, we want to try and find ways to support you to continue to be engaged with the craft of writing for performance, engaging with an audience, telling stories and taking people on journeys. We truly hope that this series of on-line workshops – will inspire and support you to be creative and to find new possibilities for your work to be realised.
This week playwright director, and dramaturg Anthony Simpson-Pike checks in with us all and offers a ritual to get back to writing.
I want to imagine something together. I want to imagine that stories really matter. Not in an airy-fairy way, but in the language of brick and bone. Stories as architecture. They make the world and as humans we react to each other and live in the world, based on the stories we know. Some of us are afraid to go into the sea because we’ve heard stories of big fish with sharp teeth. Others might follow me in a shop because of the stories they’ve been told, and internalised, about people who look like me. So stories have real power. And real consequences. We learn our way of being from the stories we are told. And in retelling them, we also reinforce the way of the world. We make the story ‘true’.
But even so, the institutions, the rules, the regulations, the fundamentals of how we live life are made up, invented by us. They’re stories that have calcified and assumed supremacy until we can’t imagine any other way of doing things. Our entire economic system relies on the story of giving each other bits of otherwise worthless paper that we’ve agreed is called money. We live in bits of land we’ve decided to call countries, though nature and indeed the climate crisis don’t recognise borders. We’ve made up rules about gender, ‘race’, class and we are asked to buy into these stories every day or face the consequences. We must keep performing the roles that keep the story going. There is little room for other stories, and any that do exist are shot down. So what does this mean for storytellers? What is our role in this picture?
I was struck, years ago, to read about a thought experiment called The Veil of Ignorance by a philosopher called John Rawls in his book Theory of Justice. Everyone is biased by their own experiences, he wrote, so it is difficult to agree on a fair social contract for organising the world. If the essence of justice is fairness, then to make a just world it needs to be a fair one. Rawls’ thought experiment entails placing yourself under a veil of ignorance in which you do not know your race, class, gender, your body, your position in society. If one writes the story of the world that they will be born into, liable to end up anywhere in society under these circumstances, there might be a better chance of achieving fairness and avoiding your own biases in the design. Rawls’ experiment is about imagining that different stories are possible. If we take a step back we can see the building blocks of the current story and our place in it clearly. The world doesn’t have to be like this, we could reimagine it. We could tell a new story.
The climate crisis is also a crisis of the imagination. We can’t imagine living differently so we can’t remake the world for the better. We can only be what we have previously imagined. The American literary critic Frederic Jameson wrote “someone once said it is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism”. Responding to this Mark Fisher argued this is a product of a general atmosphere called capitalist realism, which is produced through culture, work and education and constrains thought and action so no-one can imagine living outside of capitalism. Our imaginations are being constrained by a single story. Ask yourself, how many stories have you seen that don’t take place in the conditions of capitalism? Hard, right? Much easier to make a list of stories about apocalypse.
Thought experiment 1
Let’s imagine in a parallel universe there exists a type of ritual. People gather and explore an idea or a question, or several, in collaboration. They hash things out, they do research, they dedicate themselves, and they create a story. They populate this story, they bring it alive, they inject it with human experience so it may resonate with others in the community. And they practice telling that story again and again. They want to tell it how they imagine it. How they collectively imagine it. Eventually, other members of the community are invited to hear the story if they haven’t already been involved in constructing it and, importantly, they listen in a way they might not otherwise listen to a story outside of this ritual. They agree to believe things (temporarily) that they wouldn’t otherwise so they can properly hear the story and invest in it. They might even agree to stay in the same space as the storytellers and to engage until the end. The listeners’ presence is the most important element and it changes how the story is told. The possibilities of this ritual seem endless. Right?
How could you use this ritual? Come up with a list of ideas might want to explore if you really had access to this ritual. How could it change something in your community?
Thought experiment 2
In order to complete this ritual, as I wrote above, people often practice telling the story lots of times before telling it to their community. They want their story to have the power it deserves. And in practicing, a tool is developed. It’s called rehearsal, the etymological roots of which are from the old French rehercier literally “to rake over, turn over soil” . Using rehearsal you can imagine anything and practice making it happen, practice making it ‘real’ in the way that money is real, practice making the story resonate.
While people mostly use it to practice telling the old stories, you have another idea. You realise rehearsal is a powerful tool. You imagine conjuring an entirely new world and getting ready for it now. You understand you can rehearse the possibilities of the future before they even happen. What if it wasn’t just the storytellers who could ‘rehearse’ ideas? What if everyone had access to this tool? You decide to collectively think through ideas in your community, to imagine possibilities and practice the future in advance. You know that in times of crisis temporary communities form and people help each other in ways they wouldn’t normally. What if you could rehearse being the type of community you will need to be before the crisis even happens?
Come up with 3 wildly different ways you might be able to use ‘rehearsal’ in your community? Be bold.
Thought experiment 3
One day, our community finds out devastating news. There is a crisis. The story we have always been told, and had come to believe, is wrong. We had been told this is the way things are and always will be. But you had begun to suspect that wasn’t true a long time ago. A question had entered your mind, what if stories make the world rather than just describe it? You’d realised the story of how we live is only one story with occasional variations. The language is rearranged but the fundamentals stay the same: we can always have more and our land, our fuel will never run out. The accumulation of things is paramount. But if there aren’t any other stories, how will we ever live differently? We can only be what we’ve already imagined.
You notice the change in the weather first, it is warmer longer and the seasons become unreliable. When the cracks start appearing you are scared and don’t want to look at them. Some cry out that we desperately need a new story of living together. They warn we don’t have much time left. Our story is killing us. While you’ve loved imagining different ways of existing it feels so enormous when you have no other choice.
A sickness appears in the natural world. The skies turn red. Our story of living is breaking the world open. Billions of animals begin to disappear. One day they are there, the next they are gone. Disappeared in the blink of a planetary eye. The more we accumulate, the less space there is to live. We desperately need to make a new world. What can you do as just one person trying to change an entire story? Especially when there are those who don’t want other stories to be told because they know the power of a story. They want people to believe that we didn’t make this one up. That the world has always been this way and all storytellers can do is describe it as it is. Everyone, not just professional storytellers, is engaged in keeping the story alive by performing it every day. But you know stories make the world. They express the limits of our imagination. And if you can tell a different one, you can expand what is possible.
Those who have been studying the red skies say we have 9 years left to come up with a different story of living and start performing it. If we don’t, the world will be never recover. Everything will go quiet. And the people who will suffer first are the ones who have done the least damage. In fact, they are already suffering. In fact, while we’ve been telling the same story as if it still makes sense we didn’t realise that for many the skies went red long ago. This is an emergency. But people who don’t want to look at the sky are finding it hard to imagine living in other ways. It’s not their fault, the structure is designed for that. The crisis killing the world is also a crisis of the imagination, of not being able to imagine living differently. That question again, what can one person do to change a whole story? Well, who better equipped to do that than a storyteller? You think of your tools and remember the ritual: people gather to invest in a new story and agree to believe something they might not have before, that anything is possible. Not only can the ritual change people’s ways of seeing but if enough people work together, it could change our story of being too. A collective act of imagination. You remember the idea of rehearsal, imagining an idea and practicing it to make it real. You can use the tools you already have! And you can take them even further, you can destroy the distance between storyteller and listener and instead be in genuine conversation believing, as is true, that everyone is a storyteller and everyone makes the world. You can reimagine and repurpose the tool of rehearsal, imagine a new way of living and prepare for it now. You realise it isn’t about one person changing a whole story, it’s about all of us harnessing the power we already have.
Imagine you live in a world undergoing a global emergency and that the population has 9 years left to change its way of living. What would you do with the tools you have?
Towards the Future
I invite you to do these thought experiments with me, if you can really even call them that, because I think storytellers have more power than we imagine and that if we could take a step back and see the tools we already have, we would know that more keenly. What can one person do to change a story? Well, we don’t need to do it alone. What can a whole community of storytellers do to change a story? I would take those odds.
Today, every story is told in the context of the climate emergency whether we face it head on or not. Nothing is made outside of that context. I think if we were asked to hypothetically imagine what people who lived in a society that had 9 years left to transform or implode would do with that time, we would come up with something very different from what’s actually happening. Because stories make the world, and don’t just describe it, all art is political. How we tell stories, as well as which stories we tell, matters. Each story told is a choice not to tell another, that’s inevitable. But if stories genuinely matter, how can we tell stories of and in the way we’d like to live life? What if theatres could be imagination centres, breaking open the single story of how life can be organised? What if we could imagine different futures and rehearse them now? Show they’re possible. Defeat the single story.
This provocation isn’t just about the content of the story that’s being told. I don’t think we should only be making work about the emergency but we are always making work within it. In fact, content-only thinking can be dangerous. Years ago, I saw a show about the environment. It asked the audience to take better care of the world. I liked it and asked the creative team about how the content had informed the process. I was informed that there hadn’t been a recycling bin in the rehearsal room so they brought one in. That was the extent of the marriage between content and process. They had stopped at the content of the story. The show was extremely resource heavy and ironically, doing a show about something other than the climate crisis with a robust ecological process would have better served the provocation to take care of our world. We can be so much more ambitious. Process is political. We know form is too. If we really took up that idea, we could imagine centring wellbeing, sustainability and care in not just how shows are made, but how the entire industry operates. What if the theatre industry could take up Rawls’ thought experiment and redesign itself with climate justice as its goal? What if that inspired other industries to do the same? That might sound utopian. But what is our job as storytellers if not to imagine, boldly, the possibilities of the future?
I have been excited by many artists imagining new ways of being right now and I’d like to reference a few of their works below. I have found all these pieces inspiring in thinking through what it means to make work in the context of the climate emergency and in their conception of different possible futures.
Rebekah Ubuntu, Despair, Hope and Healing: Three Movements for Climate Justice- https://rebekahubuntu.com/projects
Rosie Elnile, Prayer- https://salon.io/rosie-elnile/opening-page
Rachael Young, Thirst Trap- https://fueltheatre.com/projects/thirst-trap/
Andy Field, Lookout- https://andytfield.co.uk/portfolio/lookout/
Anthony Simpson-Pike is a director, writer and dramaturg whose work has been staged in theatres including The Gate, The Young Vic and The Royal Court. He is currently the Associate Director at The Yard Theatre, was previously the associate director at The Gate Theatre and was a finalist for the 20th JMK award. He is interested in new writing as well as radical re-stagings of classic works, exploring the political function of theatre and questions around identity, power, representation and the environment. As well as working as a dramaturg, Anthony is a reader for The Royal Court.
Anthony is also a facilitator, with a passion for theatre centring young people and communities, having worked at The Gate, The Royal Court, The Young Vic and The Globe in this capacity. In addition to theatre, Anthony has worked with Tamasha Theatre company to make audio drama for the National Archives (Loyalty and Dissent) and enjoys working across different media. He is passionate about international work having received a British Council bursary to visit the Informal European Theatre Meeting in Brussels, as well as being selected by the British Council to attend DirectorsLab North in Toronto. In 2019, he was invited to be a visiting guest artist for the Banff Playwrights Lab.
Recent directorial work includes The Ridiculous Darkness by Wolfram Lotz at The Gate, which received 5-star reviews, “stunning and subversive” (The Stage), “you’d be sorely pressed to find anything more riveting or stupendous” (WhatsOnStage).
As a writer, Anthony directed his first play Camp, “the epitome of the [Etcetera’s] Black Box festival and an excellent example of new work” (Everything Theatre). He has also completed Soho Theatre’s Writers Lab.